While T.S. Eliot may have measured out his life with coffee spoons, researchers and fans of the poet are hoping to measure his legacy through a newly revealed collection of letters which has been unseen in over 60 years.
The set of 1,131 letters from Eliot to his companion Emily Hale was unveiled Thursday at Princeton University Library.
The correspondence – which dates from 1930 to 1957 – is among some of the most renowned sealed literary archives in the world, making its release a highly anticipated event among scholars and literary fans, Princeton University Library says.
The letters have been untouched since 1956, when Hale donated them to the Princeton University Library. She requested that they remain sealed until 50 years after the death of whichever of the pair died last.
The prominent modernist Eliot and Hale met in 1912 when Hale was attending Smith College and Eliot was at Harvard. The friends corresponded often, even after Eliot moved to England.
Eliot died of emphysema in 1965 and Hale followed soon after in October 1969. Her death marked October 2019 as the 50-year date for the unsealing of her donation to Princeton.
In 1971, the library decided that the collection would not be available to the public until January 2020, giving librarians time to prepare the letters to be studied.
Hale’s donation also included photographs, clippings, a brief note she wrote about her relationship with Eliot, and other ephemera, the library said in a news release.
The intimate unveiling
The collection was first opened at a small gathering in October for processing and cataloging.
Chloe Pfendler, an archivist in the library’s Special Collections division, said the letters were still in the original envelopes and bundles that Hale had likely kept them in.
Susan Stewart, Professor of English at Princeton, was present at the unsealing of the collection. In the news release, she described the moment librarians snipped the metal closure on the archival crates, revealing the letters.
“They proceeded in tandem to snap the copper bands holding the crates and the wooden slats clattered to the table. Revealed at last were the letter boxes that held the answers to one of the most intriguing mysteries of modernism: Princeton’s trove of more than a thousand letters sent by T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale between 1930 and 1956,” she said.
What the correspondence might reveal
“Eliot is the rare poet who is also a vital critic and thinker; the contribution of the letters to our understanding of his work promises to be immeasurable,” Stewart added.
Princeton University Library explains that the letters might provide insight into the relationship between Eliot and Hale, which many have speculated was romantic in nature.
They may also shed light on Eliot’s personal life, thoughts on the contemporary literary world, and his career as a writer, critic and editor for publishing house Faber & Faber and British literary magazine The Criterion.
Making the collection available
In the news release, Pfendler described the delicate process of preparing the letters for handling.
“Nearly half of the letters were discovered to still be folded inside of their corresponding envelopes,” Pfendler said. “This required processing staff to carefully remove each letter from its enclosure in order to improve and streamline handling of the materials in the reading room.”
The archivist said the letters were arranged in chronological order and sent to be digitally imaged.
By digitizing the collection, she explained, multiple researchers will be able to work with the letters at the same time.
Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications told CNN the letters are under copyright until 2035 and are not available for access online. Because of copyright restrictions, pictures of the letters are also prohibited.
Researchers can access the collection at the university’s Firestone Library on a first-come-first-serve basis. They will be allowed to physically handle one box at a time or view the entire digital collection all at once on a reading room laptop.